This sermon is part of the sermon series "Acts: The Rest of the Story". See series.
One of the ministers at this church the television show 24 because of the things that Jack Bauer never has to do: eat, charge his cell phone, heal from his wounds, go to the bathroom, say "please," or use money to pay for things. I like 24 for a different reason. I like 24 because bad stuff happens. Bad stuff happens in other shows, but not like in 24. In 24, main characters—good guys—get killed all the time. Sometimes Jack even kills them! One time on the show, a nuclear bomb that Jack was trying to keep from detonating, actually went off! Those things just don't happen in other shows.
I think that's one reason I like the Bible so much: the Bible is realistic about how really bad stuff happens. First of all, its heroes do bad stuff. Abraham lied. David committed adultery and murder. Peter denied Christ. Moses spent most of his life heading for the Promised Land, but he wasn't able to enter it, because he lost his temper. Then after hundreds of years in the Promised Land, God gets so fed up with his chosen people that he allows them to be hauled off into exile. Then you have stories like the one in Numbers 16, in which the people of Israel are in the wilderness and a guy name Korah and a group of Levites rebel against Moses. As a result, the Bible says, the earth literally opened up and swallowed 250 of them. Stuff like that didn't happen in Gunsmoke. But it does happen in 24, and it does happen in life.
Many of these stories warn us that God takes our sin and rebellion seriously; that he's not a God to trifle with; that when you try to fool the Lord you're only fooling yourself.
In Acts 5 we come to a story from the early church that illustrates this very truth. Remember that Peter and John had just been released from a night in jail. They were warned not to speak or teach about Jesus. They returned to the church where they all prayed that God would give them boldness to do what they were told not to do, and he answered their prayer. They were all filled with the Spirit and began to speak the word with boldness.
The Spirit-filled church experienced grace.
According to Acts 4:32-37, the early church experienced a time of wonderful blessing. At the end of verse 33, Luke writes that "abundant grace was upon them all." What a great line! Grace is God's unmerited favor; his blessing, power, and joy. It wasn't upon just the apostles, but all of them. In the surrounding verses we see what that grace looked like.
One characteristic of this period of grace was that the apostles continued to offer powerful testimony about the resurrection of Jesus. They didn't abide by the Sanhedrin's warning to keep quiet. Many people who listened to them were convinced that the gospel was true, and they were being transformed by the power of the gospel.
Another indication of God's grace was the people "were of one heart and soul." We know at this time there were well over 5,000 believers. While they were mostly, if not all, Jews at this point, they were from all walks of life, and from all over the Roman Empire, including one Levite from Cyprus. Nonetheless, they shared a deep spirit of unity. This unity was not based on conformity such that everyone was forced to dress the same and talk the same and act the same. This was a unity of heart and mind and love and purpose.
This led to another sign of God's grace: they practiced generosity. This started with a new attitude towards their possessions. Luke writes, "not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but they had everything in common." This doesn't mean they literally renounced all private ownership. It means that while they continued to own possessions, they didn't claim them as their own. They had an open-handed attitude toward everything they had. When someone had a need, they met it. From time to time, people would even sell land to meet those needs. They would take the money and entrust it to the apostles to distribute as they saw fit. The idea was not that everyone should have exactly the same amount, but that when there was a real need, people would sacrifice to meet it.
It's in that context that we get a positive example in the person of Barnabas. Barnabas is going to play an important part in the Book of Acts. He was from the tribe of Levi and he was a native of Cyprus, where there was a large population of Jews. Barnabas was best known as an encourager. Through the Book of Acts, he always has his arm around someone, bringing comfort and encouragement. Luke says that Barnabas sold a piece of land and gave the money to the apostles. They didn't hold a banquet in his honor, or put a plaque up on the wall with his name on it. Luke wants us to know that this is the kind of thing people were doing. Being a Christian means being a part of a community in which this kind of thing happens; this is one of the ways the Spirit works. We've seen how the impact of the Spirit is felt in outreach to the world, but here we see that it's also felt in our experience of community within the church.
I recently received a letter from a couple in our church. For two years this couple and their young son had been without a furnace. One of our elders heard about this and suggested we use some money from our special needs fund to buy them a furnace. We did, and in response, the couple wrote me a touching letter of gratitude. They said when they came into the house and felt the warmth of the furnace, their son ran over and literally hugged the heater! No one should be without a furnace; someone sacrificed so this family could have one. That's the kind of thing we're called to do for one another.
When the Spirit of God invades a life, what inevitably happens is that our grip on our things is loosened, while our attachment to people is strengthened. Buying a furnace for someone becomes more important to us than redecorating our living room. When we experience God's grace and how he gave so much to us that we didn't deserve, we want to do the same for others.
The Spirit-filled church experienced God's judgment.
You're probably wondering, What about all that bad stuff you were talking about? Along with the positive example of Barnabas, Luke gives us the negative example of Ananias and Sapphira. This is one of the most shocking stories in the New Testament.
Ananias and Sapphira were part of the church community, presumably believers. Somehow, they caught wind of what Barnabas did. So they sold a piece of property, too, and gave the proceeds of the sale to the apostles. On the surface, it must have appeared that they were doing exactly what Barnabas had done. The truth was, they pretended to give the whole amount, and for whatever reason, they decided to hold back some for themselves. Maybe originally they intended to give it all, but the more they thought about what they could do with that money, the more they liked the idea of holding onto some of it. They might have thought, At least we're giving some of it. God knows we need the money. Let's just keep part of it and give the rest.
So they kept some of the proceeds, and somehow Peter found out. While Sapphira was in line at the bank, Peter confronted Ananias. Peter acknowledged that Ananias had every right to do what he wanted with the land and the money. No one forced him to sell it, and no one told him how much to give. The problem Peter had was not Ananias' greed, but his deceit. It might have been greed that led to deceit, but deceit was the real sin. If they had just been honest about what they were giving, it wouldn't have been an issue. That's why Peter twice said, "You've lied. You've lied to the Holy Spirit. You've lied not to men but to God." Somehow they became so focused on what people would see and think, that they forgot what God would see and think. Peter suggests this happened because of the influence of Satan, the father of lies. This whole story was a plot hatched by the enemy. He's always looking for ways to tear apart the church. If he can't get to us by persecution from the outside, he'll work from the inside.
Poor Ananias! Before he could even offer an explanation, he dropped dead. This might have been as much of a surprise to Peter as it is to us. Perhaps Ananias had a heart attack from the shock of being exposed. Regardless, we are to understand this as the work of divine judgment. Before you know it, his body is being removed, wrapped up, and buried.
Three hours pass. I imagine Peter thought and prayed a lot about what had just happened during that time. I suspect Peter was more grieved than angry. And he was no doubt torn; he didn't want to get in the way of what God was doing, but neither did he want Sapphira to suffer the same fate as her husband. As a result, it appears Peter gave her an opportunity to change her mind and tell the truth. But he must have known another lie would lead to the same judgment. When Peter confronted Sapphira, she too fell dead.
Can you imagine being in church that day? Can you imagine running into someone who had missed church: "Hey, how did things go Sunday?" they ask. That's not the best way to grow a church; it's not something we would want to put in the bulletin or add to the Web site. Twice Luke tells us that the impact on the people there that day—and those who heard about it later—was "great fear." In this story we've seen great grace, great power, and now great fear. I think this is exactly the impact God wanted this incident to have. He wanted the early church to be warned that God takes sin seriously. You don't trifle with the house of God. When you try to fool the Lord, you're only fooling yourself.
When you try to fool the Lord, you are only fooling yourself.
Deceit is a serious sin. Someone says, "Thank God this doesn't happen any more. If it did, we'd have to put a morgue in every church." But it does happen. All sin leads to death; if not physical death, then spiritual death. It cuts us off from God.
One of the things this story shows us is that there is something about the sin of deceit that God especially hates. Perhaps that's because deceit is especially destructive to the fellowship and unity of God's people. We often tell our kids that lying is the worst thing they can do to our family, because lies destroy trust. The Enemy knows that and tries to destroy the precious unity, fellowship, and trust of God's people by getting us to hide who we really are.
We do this in so many ways. When I was in seminary, I lied to a professor. I told him I had read a textbook when, in fact, I hadn't. As a result, I got the grade I wanted. Three years later the Spirit of God convicted me of my deceit, and I wrote him and confessed. He was gracious to forgive me, but I wonder if from that time on he thought twice about trusting his students to tell the truth about what they had read. This kind of thing is especially prevalent in churches, because we have such high standards. Someone becomes a part of a church and learns what kinds of things are valued. You're supposed to give away at least 10 percent of your income. You're supposed to pray and read your Bible every day. You're supposed to witness to your unbelieving friends. You're supposed to have kids who love the Lord, never lose your temper, never drink too much, and enjoy marital bliss. But what happens when your life doesn't match up with the script? Do you fake it? Do you pretend? When we do that, we die.
That's what this story shows us. The minute Ananias and Sapphira pretended to be something they weren't—death! We often wear a mask of spirituality to hide our sin when we come to church. We might be struggling with problems in our homes, but we hide them. The pride that doesn't want anyone else to know what's going on between husbands and wives and between parents and children keeps us from sharing. Somebody asks us how things are going, and we reply, "Great! Fine! Praise the Lord!" The minute we say that falsely, we die. Soon that death pervades the whole church and it feels stiff and cold and lifeless.
We all know we can't fool God. So why do we do hide? One reason is our incessant desire to look better than we are. We love the praise—or at least acceptance—of our peers. Our desire for acceptance can cloud our judgment, making us more concerned with what others see than with what God sees.
Peter reveals another reason in his response to Sapphira: "You've put the Spirit of the Lord to the test." What does that mean? It means she wanted to find out how far she could go and still get away with it. We do this when we presume upon God's grace. We move forward into sin and deceit believing that we'll later confess and be forgiven. That's how the enemy wants us to think.
How do we address this? First of all, we need to take sin more seriously. We also need to cultivate sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. But perhaps the most important thing we can do is develop relationships in which we can be open. We need to know people well enough that they can call us out in our lies. Participating in small groups can help us develop relationships in which we can take off our masks and be real about our lives, and where we can gently wash each other's feet of the dirt that has accumulated. Sometimes we even have to take a risk and call someone on their sin.
As a preacher, I'm aware of how easy it is to let people think that I'm something I'm not. I preach a sermon on prayer and you might think that I have a prayer life like Elijah. But if you were to see my prayer life apart from a few hours here on Sunday morning, you wouldn't be impressed. I often encourage people to give to the work of God in a sacrificial way, yet when I look at the amount of money I gave this past year, compared to the amount of money I squandered on meaningless things, I'm ashamed. I tell you all of this because I want us to be a fellowship of people who are serious enough about sin and about the pursuit of holiness that we're willing to tell the truth about what we are. If we try to fool the Lord, we're only fooling ourselves.
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.